Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker obituary

‘Spenser’ novelist Parker dead at 77
Prolific, funny, he reinvented genre
By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff | January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker, whose spare, eloquent sentences turned the tough private investigator Spenser into one of Boston’s most recognizable fictional characters, suffered a heart attack at his desk in his Cambridge home Monday and died. He was 77.

Muscular and gruff like his creator, Spenser shared other traits with Mr. Parker. Behind the pugnacious exterior, both men liked to chase fine food with a cold beer. Both had a sharp wit and lived by a code of honor.

Over the course of three dozen Spenser novels, Mr. Parker introduced millions of readers to Boston, which was as much a character as his burly protagonist. To a predictable genre, he added a complex detective with a sensitive side. The wry dialogue between Spenser and longtime girlfriend Susan Silverman, who was schooled in the art of psychology, gave a modern twist to the repartee between the Nick and Nora characters created generations earlier by noted crime novelist Dashiell Hammett.

“He was responsible for a seismic shift,’’ said best-selling writer Dennis Lehane, whose crime novels “Mystic River’’ and “Gone, Baby, Gone’’ were adapted into movies. “He suddenly made the private-eye novel sexy, in the coolest sense of that word. There’s private-eye fiction before Bob, and there’s private-eye fiction after him.’’

Joseph Finder, a Boston-based author of best-selling spy thrillers, said Mr. Parker “took the American hard-boiled private-eye novel that had been languishing for years, since James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, and revitalized it. He took a lot of the standard tropes - the tough guy, the lone wolf, the man of honor on the mean streets - and updated them so that his Spenser character became sort of an avatar of himself. He was actually a guy who cooked, who was incredibly devoted to one woman, the way Bob Parker was to Joan, his wife.’’

Publishing 65 books in 37 years, Mr. Parker was as prolific as he was well-read. He featured Spenser - “spelled with an ‘s,’ just like the English poet,’’ he said - in 37 novels. He also wrote 28 other books, including a series each for Jesse Stone, the police chief of fictional Paradise, Mass., and Sunny Randall, a female private investigator in Boston.

His latest book, “Split Image,’’ extending the Jesse Stone series, is due out next month, said his agent, Helen Brann of New York City.

Mr. Parker’s marquee character was turned into the TV series “Spenser for Hire,’’ starring Robert Urich. “Jesse Stone’’ became a TV movie vehicle for Tom Selleck, and “Appaloosa,’’ his 2005 Western, was made into a 2008 film directed by and starring Ed Harris, who filled a shelf with Mr. Parker’s books.

“Robert wrote about this friendship between these two guys that tickled me,’’ Harris said of “Appaloosa.’’ “It just felt right. It felt good.’’

Mr. Parker, he added, “was a national treasure. I loved him and I’ll miss him.’’

Brann, who represented Mr. Parker for 42 years, said he had a heart attack while his wife was away from the house. “She saw him early in the morning, went out for her exercise, came back an hour later, and he was gone,’’ Brann said. “He was at his desk, as he so often was.’’

Pounding out up to five pages a day, Mr. Parker kept a pace few could match. Pressed for his secret, he made it sound simple.

“The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction,’’ he told the Globe in 2007. “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books.’’

Perhaps, but readers around the world raced to devour novel after novel. Brann estimated that Mr. Parker sold more than 6 million volumes worldwide. His work was translated into 24 languages.

He was teaching English at Northeastern University when he began writing the novels featuring Spenser, whose first name is never revealed. Mr. Parker didn’t care for academia and made no secret of his animosity in his first book’s first sentence: “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.’’

In 1975, Globe reviewer Walter V. Robinson welcomed “God Save the Child,’’ Mr. Parker’s second effort: “Spenser is back, and none too soon to give the connoisseur of that rare combination of good detective fiction and good literature a chance to indulge himself.’’

Mr. Parker grew up in Springfield, where he and Joan Hall first met at a birthday party when they were 3. They met again years later at Colby College in Maine. He pursued her. She resisted, then relented. They married in 1956.

“He was very smart and he knew it, and I reveled in that,’’ she told the Globe in 1981. “He was the only man who didn’t bore me.’’

After serving in the Army, Mr. Parker worked in a variety of jobs before going to graduate school at Boston University, where he received a doctorate in English literature.

In the early 1980s, the couple separated, then got back together in an arrangement they publicly acknowledged was unusual, but worked for them. They bought a sprawling house in Cambridge and each lived in a private area.

Mr. Parker dedicated his books to his wife, and told the Globe in 1992 that “she has been the central factor in my life since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand me unless you understand me and her.’’

In addition to his wife, Mr. Parker leaves two sons, David of New York City and Daniel of Santa Monica, Calif. The family is planning a memorial service.

Despite the wealth and fame that came with TV, movies, and worldwide sales, Mr. Parker “was so dependable, such a regular guy,’’ said Kate Mattes, who ran Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge for 26 years. “He never put on airs or anything, and he certainly had the right to.’’

Mr. Parker, who sometimes likened himself to a carpenter who built books, helped others learn his trade.

“The debt’s huge and I was always upfront about that,’’ Lehane said. “My first book is so much Robert Parker in the first chapter that I’m surprised he didn’t sue me.’’

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


  1. I must admit I have never read any of Mr. Parker's books and never consciously came across his name until now - and that's me, the Librarian!
    But I truly like his comparing his work to building a book, like a carpenter would build something; good writing is just as much handicraft as it is talent.

    (By the way, Nan - my mum is still trying to find info about German mysteries translated into English. Seems it is not so easy!)

  2. I'm so sad to hear this. I've read a lot of his Spenser books. 77is much too young to leave us.

  3. It's funny, Librarian, how some writers get on our radar and others don't. I'm always learning of new-to-me authors. Please thank your mum!

    Kay, I had hoped for more years and more books. He just seemed so alive.

  4. I was shocked and sad to read his obit this morning. No more Hawk and Pearl and Susan.

  5. I was so saddened to hear of his death. I have the entire Spenser (and Jessie) series to look forward to, but I'm sorry there won't be any more of Sunny Randall. Damn. I loved that series.

  6. I started reading his books when I was dating my husband - good memories curled up in a big armchair in a Park Slope apartment reading Spencer paperbacks. A great gruff lovely man. I just did an obit on my blog about Kate McGarrigle. It seems that there is a scary lot of that lately.

  7. I'm so sorry to hear he is gone. My husband and I like his Jesse Stone books and my husband likes the Westerns too. This is a great loss. Thanks for the great memorial to Mr. Parker.

  8. Jodi, such unique characters. I haven't read all the books in the series, so thankfully have some to look forward to.

    Les, I've not read the Sunny books, but love the Spenser series.

    Susan, I love how we associate books with times and places in our lives. I'll be over to read your piece. I didn't listen much to the sisters, but they've been in my consciousness for ages; and now her children, too.

    Margot, we've just seen the Tom Selleck versions but would like to read the books now. I think Selleck was terrific in this role. Did you?

  9. Robert Parker will be missed by many readers, including my dh and I. His books are engaging and great fun, so I am happy you printed this in your post.
    I believe the news said he was found at his desk, and for a writer that is an appropriate way to go.
    I am glad there are a few more Spenser books in the pipeline.
    May you be in heaven today, Mr. Parker.

  10. Oh how I'll miss them all - Spenser,Susan,Pearl,and Hawk - even the bad guys. I've sometimes put his books down and thought what fun it would have been had Robert Parker been part of our own family. My condolences to his wife and sons.

  11. What a nice, nice thought, anonymous. (who are you?)

  12. Nan, thanks for the plug! I've never read any of the Robert Parker books, not being into mysteries (unless Wilkie Collins or the Bronte sisters). And I really, really like your new blog header pic! Just great.

    All best, Catherine

  13. Thanks, Catherine. I love that old coffee ad. I used it for a while last winter, too. Not often I see my name in print like that! I decided to sit right down and read The Pantry instead of just dipping in all the time (nearly every day!). That way it will draw people to it when I do a book report. It is a work of art.


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